Growing up, the most exciting part of Chinese New Year for me was always the Chinese New Year Red Envelope or Red Packet—the 红包 hóngbāo!
On the eve of Chinese New Year, it is a common practice for families to gather to have 团圆饭 tuányuán fàn or reunion dinner. After dinner, children will receive the first Chinese New Year Red Envelopes of the season from their parents. These 红包 hóngbāo will contain压岁钱 yā shuì qián—literally, “age-restraining money”—for the kids.
I remember the hours after dinner, when I would sit with my parents and fold crisp new dollar notes neatly, and insert them into the 红包 hóngbāo. The amounts would vary depending on the recipients, which would include not just children, but also unmarried friends, relatives (the closer the relatives, the larger the amount), and any service staff we might encounter over the holiday.
Each Chinese New Year Red Envelope would be sealed with glue, and when we didn’t have glue, we would squeeze a grain of white rice tightly until it formed a tiny smear of sticky paste. (Here’s a fun recipe for making your own rice glue.)
But even though the Chinese New Year Red Envelope is such an important 习俗 xísú or tradition, I never knew its history or what exactly 压岁钱 yā shuì qián meant.
Do you know the stories of the 红包 hóngbāo… and that they include demons and monsters?
The Chinese New Year Red Envelope as a Weapon Against the 祟 (suì) Demon
The first story is that the ritual of giving children 压岁钱 yā shuì qián originated as a way to ward off a demon known as 祟 suì.
This 鬼祟 guǐsuì (鬼 guǐ means ‘demon’ or ‘evil spirit’) would touch children’s heads on the eve of the Chinese New Year, and give them headaches and fever. The poor kids would also be unlucky for the rest of the year, and lose cognitive abilities!
To prevent the 鬼祟 guǐsuì from attacking the children in the home, parents would try to keep their children awake throughout the night. The house lights were also kept on all night to 守祟 shǒu suì, which literally means to ‘guard against the 祟 suì’.
Legend has it that there was a couple who doted on their son, and strung up eight copper coins to entertain him on Chinese New Year’s Eve. Hard as they tried, they could not stay awake through the night, and soon, the whole family was fast asleep, with the string of copper coins left on the side of the child’s pillow.
The 祟 suì demon got to their home and was just about to reach out and touch the boy’s head when the reflected light on the eight copper coins shone on it, and scared it away. The demon ran away, never to go near the boy again.
And so the news about this novel method of dealing with the 祟 suì spread far and wide, and people started using red string to string up copper coins, and this practice eventually evolved into the Chinese New Year Red Envelope. The money within became known as压祟钱 yā suì qián, which translates as “sui-suppressing money”.
Because 祟 suì sounds like 岁 suì (meaning ‘age’ or ‘year’), 压祟钱 yā suì qián, the demon-suppressing money, became the much more pleasant-looking 压岁钱 yā suì qián, meaning ‘age-suppressing money’, and giving it became akin to wishing the recipient a long life.
The Chinese New Year Red Envelope as a Weapon Against the 年 (Nián) Monster
The second story has to do with a monster as well… the 年兽 Nián shòu.
As legend has it, the 年兽 Nián shòu emerges every winter and preys on humans and animals. After years of attacks, people figured out the 年兽 Nián shòu was sensitive to loud noises, fire, and the colour red.
So the traditions of setting off fireworks and firecrackers, hanging red lanterns and decorations, wearing red clothing, and even lion dances all arose to scare the 年兽 Nián shòu off.
The Chinese New Year Red Envelope or 红包 hóngbāo was also used to 贿赂 huìlù or bribe the 年兽 Nián shòu so it wouldn’t harm the family.
Follow this link to read more about the 年兽 Nián shòu.
The Non-Monster History of the Chinese Red Envelope
The Chinese Red Envelope started around the same time as the Spring Festival itself, in the Han Dynasty ( 202 BC – 220 AD), when 压岁钱 yā shuì qián was called 压胜钱 yā shèng qián—a talisman meant to “suppress the triumph of evil”. This was not actual currency, but rather, metal coins carved with lucky words such as “天下太平 Tiānxià tàipíng (all is peaceful under heaven)” or “千秋万岁 qiānqiū wànsuì (a thousand autumns, ten thousand years, i.e. a wish for longevity) as well as dragons and phoenixes.
During the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618 to 907), 压胜钱 yā shèng qián became mixed up with another tradition involving giving lucky money—that of 洗儿钱 xǐ er qián (literally ‘washing baby money’), a monetary reward given to palace maids to bathe any royal newborn son.
The Tang Emperor Xuanzong upped the ante when his favourite concubine Yang Guifei 楊貴妃 gave birth to a son, giving her gold and silver as 洗儿钱 xǐ er qián.
Giving money for kids became even more widespread and by the time of the Song (906-1279) and Yuan Dynasties (1271-1368), it became a common practice to give children strings of coins tied with red string for good luck.
Meanwhile, the term压岁钱 yā suì qián became commonly used in the Ming (1368 to 1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, which was when China started using the silver and copper as legal tender.
Do’s and Don’ts When Giving Or Receiving Chinese New Year Red Envelopes
Now that you know how the Chinese New Year Red Envelope came about, here are some tips when it comes to giving or receiving them in the New Year!
1. Paper notes are preferred, so do avoid putting coins in the red envelopes!
2. Numbers matter:
a. Avoid giving amounts with the number ‘4’ in it. The number ‘4’ is deemed as inauspicious in Chinese culture as 4 in Chinese sounds like ‘death’.
b. The number ‘8’ however, is a lucky number and it is believed to bring good luck. Hence, it will be good if the amount starts or ends with ‘8’. So 8 dollars, 18 dollars, 88 dollars are all good numbers!
3. Prepare red envelopes in advance and ensure that you always have some with you in case you run into people that you know and need to give an envelope to. In our home, we have differently marked envelopes so we can very quickly know how much is in each packet!
1. It is important to use both hands to receive your red envelope as is is considered good manners whenever someone is giving you one.
2. Do not open the red envelope in front of the giver as it is deemed to be impolite.
3. Prepare a list of new year greetings to be used when receiving the red envelope to express your gratitude.
Here’s a list of phrases you can use!
恭喜发财 (gong xǐ fā cái) –prosperity and fortune in the new year
万事如意 (wàn shì rú yì) – good luck in everything
大吉大利 (dà jí dà lì) – great luck and profit
步步高升 (bù bù gāo sheng) – to rise and succeed with every step
身体健康 (shēn tǐ jiàn kāng) – good health
鸿运当头 (hóng yùn dāng tóu) – good luck is approaching
五福临门 (wǔ fú lín mén) – may fortune be bestowed upon you
Many More Traditions!
Giving out Chinese New Year Red Envelopes symbolises the passing around of good luck, happiness and blessings, and also warding off evil – remember those demons and monsters?
Handing out hongbaos is but one of the many, many, many, many traditions that make up the Chinese New Year experience.
For a peek at other New Year Traditions, read our special Dim Sum Warriors Lunar New Year story, “Celebrating is Hard Work” 《庆祝好累人！》coming very soon in the Dim Sum Warriors App – Free to Download and Read Now!
Dr. Yen Yen Woo works on educating for a multicultural and multilingual world through popular culture. She most recently co-created the Dim Sum Warriors app, characters and stories for Bilingual Learning. She has a Doctorate in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and has been a tenured professor of education. She is also an award-winning film director and screenwriter. Her works have been licensed by HBO and Netflix and featured on BBC, Fast Company, Wired, and other global publications. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.